His team collapsed. His quarterback decision is being questioned. His lights-out defense lit up.
In less than a month, Georgia will face Michigan in its return to the college football playoffs, and the Bulldogs coach has plenty of work to do until New Year’s Eve.
After the Bulldogs’ surprise 41–24 loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game, Georgia fell from first to third in the CFP rankings. The now SEC East champion, no longer considered the odds-on favorite, won it all, not after being chopped off by the Crimson Tide, and quarterback Stetson Bennett IV was unable to take the defense on an off day.
After the game, Smart did not indicate that he was considering a change of quarterback, despite the presence of one-time starter JT Daniels. Daniels, a USC transfer with a much larger arm that has a downfield element and lacks the more mobile Bennett, has a 7–0 record as a Georgia starter. He lost his job when he missed time due to a latent muscle injury. Kirby, it should be noted, has previously mishandled his quarterback position, keeping Justin Fields on the sidelines as a freshman, which led to his decision to transfer to Ohio State. He’ll really hear it if the Bulldogs fall over in Michigan and he sticks with a running Bennett once.
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Below are three other playoff storylines to follow in the coming weeks:
Alabama’s star receiver John Machi III is expected to carry what coach Nick Saban described against Georgia as a “significant” knee injury that could have been a torn ACL. This put even more pressure on former Ohio State receiver Jameson Williams, who came out of nowhere to lead the Crimson Tide in receiving yards (1,445) and touchdowns (15). Williams wiped out Georgia by catching seven passes for 84 yards and two touchdowns.
But Mechi’s absence will enable Cincinnati to turn lockdown cornerback Ahmed “Sauce” Gardner to follow him wherever he goes. Gardner, the presumptive first-round pick, never allowed a touchdown in his career. This is the best one-on-one match of the semi-finals.
A few weeks ago, Michigan fans resigned to another good — but not great — season, a 10-win campaign in which they would have to settle for an irrelevant bowl game. Now, they are thinking about the national championship. A lot changed for Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines when they conquered their Ohio State monsters.
They enter the playoff seeded second, hottest of four teams after Iowa’s 42–3 Big Ten Championship game. Michigan opened as a 7.5-point underdog to Georgia, but it is a live dog, with strength on both sides of the ball to trouble the Bulldogs. Most importantly, Harbaugh’s team believes she can beat anyone. The victory over Ohio State changed everything for this program.
Maybe the defense wins the championship. At least it will be so this year. In an era of spilled offense and shootouts, this year’s playoffs are a throwback. It consists of four teams ranked in the top 20 in defense scoring.
Three teams — Georgia, Michigan and Cincinnati — are in the top four. All four are in the top 13 in total defence. Cincinnati and Georgia rank second and third, respectively, in allowed passing yards per game. Georgia and Alabama are third and fourth in the rushing defense. It has all the potential to be a different kind of playoff than the playoffs we see here.